LOS ANGELES – Before every new season of “Fresh Off the Boat,” the ABC marketing department designed an ad campaign in which the show’s characters would be inserted into different classic paintings, including “American Gothic,” “Nighthawks” and “Whistler’s Mother.” Aside from being a visual treat, the promos reminded viewers that the Huangs were just as much a part of this country as Iowa farmers and Greenwich Village diners.
“Putting the family in iconic art, that said it all,” said Vicki Dummer, the network’s head of current series programming.
“Fresh,” which wraps up its six-season run Friday with a one-hour episode, was in many ways familiar fare that relied on stock characters: goofy dad, strict mother, battling siblings, loony grandma.
But their race made them groundbreakers. It was the first network sitcom with a primary cast of Asian-Americans since 1994’s “All-American Girl” — and that Margaret Cho-led series only lasted 19 episodes. “Fresh” will clock out with 116 episodes.
“I’ve been on this show a third of my life. It’s part of me now,” star Hudson Yang, 16, said last month during an ABC cocktail party at the Television Critics Association press tour. “I didn’t really take it all in, what it really truly meant, until this year. I think it actually changed the meaning of ‘fresh off the boat.’ It used to be a derogatory term. But now, maybe it’s a term of endearment.”
In the series, based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s upbringing in Orlando, Yang played Eddie, a hip-hop-loving teenager who is initially embarrassed that his mom packs Chinese noodles for his school lunch. But over the course of the series, Eddie slowly embraced his roots. In one recent episode, he persuaded his father to add a Chinese dish to the menu at his steakhouse. Being Asian became a source of pride.
“This has been my little contribution to the Asian community,” said executive producer Melvin Mar, who along with his business partner Jake Kasdan, also spent the past six years rebooting the “Jumanji” film franchise. “I get messages from fans whose kids are glued to the TV because they’re watching people that look like them. Even in my own family, it’s meant something.”
Mar feels he’s just getting started. He’s hoping a “Fresh” episode earlier this season that revolved around an Indian-American family running a motel will be picked up as a spinoff series in the fall. He also wants to develop a new sitcom set in modern times, rather than the ’90s.
“ ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ was about your parents’ experience. The new version should be about your experience, the next generation growing up,” he said. “I’m excited about coming out with that chapter.”
Viewers have actually already gotten a taste of what that would look like. After “Fresh” debuted in early 2015, ABC launched “Dr. Ken,” in which current “Masked Singer” judge Ken Jeong played a physician who believes that laughter is the best medicine. Netflix took home Emmys for “Master of None,” starring Aziz Ansari as a foodie with an appetite for more than curry, and Hulu picked up “The Mindy Project” with Mindy Kaling desperate to turn her life into a rom-com.
“The success of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ has helped pave the way for inclusion throughout the industry,” said ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke. “We couldn’t be prouder of this game-changing show and the impact it has had on our cultural landscape.”
The voyage hasn’t been without its icebergs. Huang has been less than kind about how the series adapted his memoir.
“People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same,” he wrote in a 2015 essay for New York magazine. “Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit ’em with the soy.”
Constance Wu, who played the unflappable mother Jessica, grumbled on social media last year when the show was picked up for a sixth season, apparently miffed that being tied to the sitcom was keeping her from taking full advantage of her success in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Hustlers.”
Of course, Wu might have never landed on the A-list if “Fresh” hadn’t first given her a platform to show off her talent.
The same could be said for Ali Wong, who worked in the show’s writers room before being hailed as one of the brightest new stars on the stand-up circuit, and Randall Park, who landed juicy roles in box-office hits “Aquaman” and “Long Shot” after being cast as Louis, the optimistic dad on “Fresh.”
“No matter what medium I’m watching, Randall has to be in it,” Yang said. “The last time I was on a plane, I watched two movies. Randall was in both of them.”
Chelsey Crisp, who portrayed loyal neighbor Honey, said it was an honor to watch her co-workers find fame.
“You kind of recognize they’re becoming role models and it’s a joy,” she said. “ ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ was that starting point, even though you don’t think about it that way when it’s happening. Only afterward. Maybe the show was the beginning of a pendulum shift toward more diversity on TV. Whatever the springboard was, thank God it happened.”